Posts Tagged ‘Age of the Earth’

Opinions

April 21, 2014

Not long ago, I was reading an article on Cracked.com titled the 4 Most Useless Pieces of Advice Everyone Believes. Like many Cracked articles this one combined humor with serious observations about life. Number two on the list is “You’re entitled to your opinion. As always when I quote from Cracked.com, please excuse the language.

Being entitled to something is saying you have a right or claim to it. There is justice in you having this thing. And what could denigrate that idea more than someone being entitled to a chucklefuck stupid opinion?

The modern world is rife with people convinced that their opinions are important and valid when, sadly, that just isn’t true. For any opinion to be valid and important, it needs to be informed, and good God do few people aspire to that.

I’ve said before that everyone will have an opinion — that’s inevitable — but you should reserve your opinion until after you have informed yourself on the matter at hand, and you should only respect the opinion of others if it passes that test.

I wish the writer would have taken his own advice. Everyone does indeed have a right to their own opinion, informed or otherwise. The question is whether you should pay any attention to what a given person has to say on a given subject. If a person has shown himself to be knowledgeable about economics or physics, then their opinion is worth listening to on those subjects. That same person’s opinion on history or entertainment may not be worth listening to.

The writer gives several examples of what he considers to be bad opinions that are self-evidently so wrong that only someone  ignorant could possibly hold them. The trouble is that each of these opinions is not self-evidently wrong and could be defended.

For evidence of this, please refer to people who are “not racist but raised to believe you stay with your own kind.” That’s their opinion. Other people have an opinion that gays shouldn’t get married. That the Earth is 6,000 years old. That climate change doesn’t exist. That women who lead you on deserve to be raped. These opinions are not informed. There is no logic behind them, no foundation on which to base them.

Three of these; people should stay with their own kind, gays should not marry, and women can deserve to be raped are questions of values rather than facts, or what ought to be done rather than what is. You may believe some or all of these statements are morally right or wrong based on the basic values you uphold, but they are not statements that can be shown to be true or false. It may be a fact that people prefer to associate with people who look like themselves, or that gays would like to marry, or that a woman may lead a man on but whether or not people should only associate with their own race, or gays should marry, or a woman who leads a man on should be raped cannot be facts and cannot be decided by observation or debate.

This is why such questions are so hard to resolve, at least when dealing with people with different cultures and values. There are few people in the United States who would say that a woman could ever deserve to be raped. In Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, people may have a different view. Nearly everyone agrees that slavery is obviously wrong. No one in ancient times thought that there was anything at all wrong with slavery.  This is not to say that we should adopt a position of moral relativism.Some things are right and some things are wrong. There is a difference, however, between right and wrong, and true and false. The one is easy to decide. The other is a little harder.

Whether or not climate change is occurring is a question of facts. One fact is relatively easy to discover. Obviously, the Earth’s climate has changed drastically throughout its history. The questions of how the climate is changing right now and to what extent human beings are changing the climate are harder to answer. The interactions of the Earth’s atmosphere and climate are extremely complex and not well understood. The question of what to do about any changes in climate is more of a matter of ought than is. It is believing that the science is settled and that the debate is over that is uninformed and illogical.

Geologists believe that the Earth is 4.57 billion years old. They have good reasons for believing this and there is a general consensus among the scientists that have studied the matter that the Earth is that old. People who believe the Earth is only 6000 years old may not be very knowledgeable about geology or  may believe that their interpretation of scripture is more authoritative than the theories of geologists, but they are not stupid or ignorant, as the writer seems to believe. They may be very knowledgeable and sensible on many subjects.

At the same time, believing that the Earth is 4.57 billion years old is not really a sign of superior intellect. I doubt very much that many of the people who believe the Earth so old have actually investigated why geologists believe that the Earth is so old or how they came to determine the age of the Earth. If a person believes that the Earth is 4.57 billion years old, that belief may be correct, or at least in line with current thinking on the subject, but they can hardly take credit for believing what they were taught in school without questioning. If they were taught the Moon was made of green cheese,  they would believe that too.

What seems to be happening here, besides poor thinking skills on the part of the writer of this piece, is another example of a trend that is becoming more noticeable recently, the tendency by leftists to declare that all debate on a given subject is over, in favor of the left wing position. Anyone who does not take the orthodox leftwing position on the subject does not simply happen to have a different opinion or is not simply mistaken about the facts, but is upholding a position that is so devoid of logic and decency that they shouldn’t even be allowed to express it in public. Their opinions are so noxious that they need never be listened to and ought never to be permitted any forum in which to express their hateful views. Thus, someone who opposes the idea of same-sex marriage does not simply value traditional ideas on marriage or have sincere religious views. All good people support same-sex marriage so that person can only be a hater and a bigot. Someone who does not believe that human beings are primarily responsible for changing the climate cannot have come to that  conclusion by examining the evidence. They can only be an either an ignoramus or in the pay of Big Oil.

It’s hard to imagine that this sort of casual disrespect could make our political discourse more civil. It is more likely to have the reverse effect. If your opponent is not simply a human being with different ideas but either the Devil or a complete idiot, you need not try to reason with them or try to understand them, or even treat them with minimal respect. You are more likely to seek to destroy or ruin them.

But, that is just my opinion. I could be wrong.

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Nature’s Clocks

September 23, 2013

When a geologist says that a particular rock is one hundred million years old, how do you know he isn’t just picking a number out of his hat? Well, you don’t, unless you decide to study the methods by which scientists date rocks and minerals. I can’t think of a better place to start than Doug Macdougal’s Nature’s Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything. In this book, Macdougal covers the basics of the various sorts of radioactive dating that scientists use to date samples. He begins, appropriately enough at the beginning with the realization by early geologists like James Hutton that the Earth must be far older than Archbishop Usser’s 6000 years.

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By studying the layers of rocks laid down and the fossils associated with each layer, geologists were able to get a good idea of the relative ages of these rocks, a layer on top of another layer is usually younger, but they had no way to measure the absolute age of these rocks or of the Earth until the discovery of radioactivity at the beginning of the twentieth century. It didn’t take long for scientists to realize that the unvarying rate of decay of a sample of a radioactive isotope into its daughter elements provided them with a clock they could use to measure the age of rocks and the Earth. All they had to do was to compare the amount of the daughter element to the amount of the mother element, and by knowing the half-life of the mother element, they could know the age of the sample.

It seems straightforward, but the process is much more complicated and took decades to develop. Scientists needed to find ways of knowing how much of the daughter elements were in the sample when it first formed. They needed to learn ways of minimizing any contamination of the sample. Macdougal describes the development of the three most common methods used for radioactive dating, radiocarbon, potassium-argon, and uranium-lead. This last was developed by Clair Patterson, who realized that the unusually high content of lead in the atmosphere that threatened to contaminate his samples was due to the use of leaded gasoline. This discovery drew attention to the health threat of such widespread usage of lead and his work ultimately led to the banning of leaded gasoline.

Macdougal moves on from the development of radioactive dating techniques to more of the more exciting recent uses, including the accurate dating of small grains of zircon to 4.1 billion years, making them the oldest material ever discovered on Earth. Macdougal explains these processes and discoveries in language that is accessible to the non-scientist, without sacrificing clarity or a basic understanding of just how they know a rock is that old. His enthusiasm for his work is contagious and makes Nature’s Clock actually fun to read. I can recommend it highly for anyone who wants to know more about radioactive dating.


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